What Page Sir? by Simon Pickering – the highs and lows of teaching classic texts in schools.

What Page Sir? by Simon Pickering 

I enjoy the memoirs of an experienced teacher, especially as Simon Pickering was an English specialist. He has written a short book that looks at the teaching of several set texts for secondary pupils in various settings. That has not been as easy and straightforward as could be expected, even before the unique teaching experience of the last couple of years. The texts that have been appearing on the syllabus off and on for the last number of years have been varied and not a little confusing. Sometimes his method of teaching has been less successful than others, sometimes the text has appealed to certain year groups at different times. Nearly all have been British classics, and taken as a whole represent  a fair range of literature over the years. The sub title ”The Joy of Text in a Secondary School Classroom” reflects the slightly cheeky and honest account of the reception of the books by various classes. This is a well written account about some fascinating situations and books, and I was so pleased to have the opportunity to read and review it.

One of the things that I normally wonder about in this sort of book is the texts covered. The list of eleven are 

Lord of the Flies, 

An Inspector Calls 

Of Mice and Men

Pride and Prejudice

A Christmas Carol

The Adventure of the Speckled Band

Journey’s End

Brighton Rock


Romeo and Juliet


As you can see, it’s quite a big range! Simon gives each text a chapter so it is possible to discuss how easy or difficult it is to teach them to different classes. There are disasters and victories, including teaching the wrong text which was only discovered on the day of the exam. He writes thoughtfully about the difficulties of conveying the usual perceptions of an author’s work; the innocence of Pride and Prejudice and Austen generally, including the perceived reward of a younger woman winning the chance to marry a much older man, is looked at through younger eyes with some confusion! 

Some of the texts prove tricky to teach, and Simon explains why. It is difficult to teach Lord of the Flies at the best of times, but to certain groups it is dated, about a mysterious group of boys, and features the bullying of a boy for being overweight. There are problems with showing films that dramatise the books – some are old black and white films, some have non school friendly scenes or language. While some films work well with some groups, others are too difficult. Other points of difficulty include the politics associated with the choice of texts, when Ofsted and exam boards make decisions, especially Michael Gove’s conviction choices. There are observations of the overall importance of teaching English compared with other subjects. The problems of reading aloud in classrooms is discussed, in terms of picking good readers or encouraging the less confident. 

This is a fascinating book for anyone who has ever attempted to teach English literature in schools. It is also of interest to anyone who has read and enjoyed the classics mentioned, and wants to see what difficulties are found in teaching them. It picks out some of the inconsistencies in well known texts which I had never really thought of, but make sense in a teaching context I enjoyed this book, found it very engaging, and it is an interesting read.